William Walker Atkinson is a fascinating persona in the history of American esoteric ephemera and parapsychology. Ass0ciated with the Yogi Publication Society and Advanced Thought Publishing in the early 20th Century, he wrote a surprising array of work under various pseudonyms on the more occult aspects of the New Thought movement. Along with Atkinson’s numerous identities, the Yogi Publication Society also put out works by A.E. Waite, Jacob Boehme, Frater Achad, Paschal Beverly Randolph and Charles Gottfried Leland (the author of Aradia – The Gospel of Witches).
Atkinson had a penchant for the more occult oriented objectives of the positive thinking movement, specializing in telepathy, clairvoyance and similarly outer phenomenon. Yet his focus on bringing this information to the public lead to a number of popular self help and success titles aimed at a wider audience. He was an active popularizer of the “power of positive thinking” technique recently reveiled via Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Anyone delving into his oeuvre, however, will find that the thin trickle of truth that may dance around in Byrne’s revival is nothing compared to the extensive ocean of accessible practical mysticism that Atkinson included in his works. It is interesting to see material from Atkinson which varies very little from later advances in practical psychicism developed by groups like the Standford Research Institute during their contracted work with the U.S. intelligence community.
Atkinson’s approach has always held a sense of sincerity that his progeny find sorely lacking. Where their work often comes off with the faint scent of confidence trickery, the genuine flicker of a gnosemic flame shines through the heavy handed marketing that accompanies his extensive output. His business savvy is a charming accessory to explorations of the deeper aspects of consciousness, rather than the uncomfortable accoutrement we find in today’s pop culture pedantry.
Such an inspired touch comes from a wider range of reference. Forget about a book on successful business craft being dull when the author has a head full of clairvoyance, spiritualism, psychometry and American Rosicrucianism. He also had the good sense to actually come into contact with those active in the hidden side of his interests, such as members of the Golden Dawn, as well as more orthodox proponents of heterodox ideologies such as Tantra and Christian mysticism.
The Yogi Publication Society ran it’s mail order operations from a number of different locations in Chicago. One of Atkinson’s most effective publishing techniques was to use different company names to approach different audiences and topics. For a number of years his publishing ventures shared the address of fellow New Thought publisher Sydney Flowers’ Psychic Research Company. 3855 Vincennes Ave., Chicago, where the Psychic Research, Co. was headquartered is now a mix of decaying factory buildings and new condominiums. The area’s confused and crumbling facade holds a history that is much more potent than mere appearance would suggest. In this is mirrors Atkinson’s own work.
An interesting aspect of the complex web of authenticity and advertising excess that he created is his interplay with the Society for Psychical Research. The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research is one of Atkinson’s favorite sources to scientifically explain the occult psychism that is the main focus of his writing.
This penchant can be demonstrated in a brief excerpt from his book, Telepathy – It’s Theory, Facts and Proof:
“So far as the subject of modern Telepathy is concerned we may as well assume that Telepathy had its birth into modern scientific thought at the time of the formation of the English Society for Psychical Research in 1882. One of the stated objects of the said Society was to conduct an examination into the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another apart from any generally recognized mode of perception. While the latter years of the Society’s existence has been devoted principally to an investigation of the phenomena of clairvoyance, spirit return, trance mediumship, etc. its first decade was almost entirely devoted to the investigation of telepathy, thought transference, and similar phenomena. The early experiments of the Society have been fully reported and these reports which comprise several volumes have given the world a record of psychic phenomena of the greatest value to science.
The celebrated Sidgwick experiments conducted under the auspices of the Society for Psychical Research in 1889 and 1890 excited great interest in scientific circles. and placed the subject of Telepathy upon a basis which science could not afford to refuse to perceive. And the result has been that many careful scientists have freely acknowledged that ‘there may be something to it,‘ some going so far as to openly advocate Telepathy as an established scientific fact, although there are many scientists who still adhere to the opinion that Telepathy remains to be proven scientifically, while some of the ultra conservatives go so far as to insist that Telepathy is scientifically impossible, this latter opinion being calculated to cause a smile to one who remembers how many ‘scientifically impossible‘ things have afterward been proven to be not only scientifically possible. or probable. but also actually existent. It is either a very bold man. or else a foolish one. who in these days can positively assert that anything is scientifically impossible. In this connection one is reminded of the learned body of scientists who sitting in conference solemnly decided that it was scientifically impossible for a vessel to cross the ocean by the power of steam. While the decision was being recorded on the minutes the word was received that a steamship had actually made the voyage across the ocean and was that moment entering the harbor. One also recalls the story of the eminent English scientist who had for a lifetime positively disputed the possibility of certain facts and who in his old age when asked to witness the actual demonstration of the disputed fact refused to look into the microscope for the purpose and left the room angrily shaking his head and saying ‘It is impossible!’ Yesterday’s impossibilities are often tomorrow’s proven facts.
Atkinson’s references to his scientific contemporaries run as strange counter points to reviews in the same journals which he quotes from. While he was glowing in his citations of the SPR, they were often less enthusiastic about a number of books put out under his authorship, calling into question the veracity of his claims.
Considering Atkinson’s use of pseudonyms, ghost written personas, and created characters, we find a perfect example of George Hansen’s theory of the ‘trickster and the paranormal.” On one side Atkinson is using the veracity of the SPR’s journal to back his practical advice on psychic development, along with what can honestly be said to be a fully engaged understanding of his subject matter. At the same time, Atkinson dissolves that veracity through his pseudonymous publishing efforts that slip past the critical analysis of the SPR, and the romantic associations he uses to promote his work.
To dismissing him outright doesn’t do justice to the riches that can be found in his bibliography. Few have extended such an open invitation to exploring the vigorous realm of practical psychism, and none have been as steady focused in providing simple, every day advice on developing the fine art of advanced mentalism. Rather than abandon him as a curiosity of the past, I personally prefer to join him in exploring ‘yesterday’s impossibilities,’ in search of ‘tomorrow’s proven facts.’
Red Wheel/Weiser has put out a reprint of Atkinson’s Clairvoyance & Occult Powers, with a great introduction to Atkinson by Clint Walsh of Wonderella Press. Reading the review copy inspired this brief animated ode to Atkinson and the grandeur of mail order esotericism:
“Written by a Master of Occult Science you are given a full and complete explanation, in plain, simple, easily understood language for the development and manifestation of Occult Powers…
Premonition & Impressions
Psychic Influence – Personal & Distant
Thought Transference and other
The Eyeless Owl presents –
How to Achieve Clairvoyance & Occult Powers,
for William Walker Atkinson,
Pseudonymous Pioneer of Advanced Thought.
Note: Special thanks to Red Wheel/Weiser for providing a review copy of Clint Marsh’s reprint of Atkinson’s Clairvoyance & Occult Powers.